Some communities in Shanghai have embraced the viral trend of commissioning videos of dancing Africans sending well-wishes to Chinese residents in lockdown. The videos often feature groups of children or muscular African men repeating uplifting messages in Chinese, addressed to communities in China. Online agents accept orders for short, custom-made video clips, priced around 200 yuan for a 30-second clip, with small added fees for “effects” such as gunshots being fired in the background. Despite well-meaning intentions, this online phenomenon reinforces certain negative stereotypes towards Africans and highlights the risks of exploitation in the China-Africa relationship.
In the South China Morning Post, Alice Yan described the recent surge in demand for these videos and the market-driven motivations behind the trend:
Mainland customers favour these videos as they are seen as exotic and amusing. The short video clips are often widely shared on social media, where many in China dedicate significant time and energy to following new trends and trying to emulate them.
[…] The sudden surge in demand from Shanghai has left some overseas video message agents struggling to keep up with orders. Some have been working on up to 200 videos a day, agents have said on WeChat.
“There is such a remarkable order surge that I have to take my video products off the shelf. I am not capable of dealing with more orders,” wrote one agent.
“It seems that all Shanghai residents are trying to contact me,” another agent wrote. “Some of my African dancers are dehydrated from dancing too much.”
[…] “Anyway, it’s a way to protect the price of our property,” added the resident [from Baoshan District in northern Shanghai who suggested ordering a video in her neighborhood chat group]. [Source]
Enthusiasm for the viral trend notwithstanding, there is a troubling history to these videos, as detailed by Cobus van Staden for the China-Africa Project:
While the trend is a reworking of services offering bespoke videos of birthday wishes, it has a darker history. Over the last few years, online services have sold and circulated videos of Africans (including children) being paid a pittance to sing and utter phrases in Mandarin and to hold up signs. When it came out that some of these signs were racist, and that the payment and production contexts were highly problematic, the issue caused strong pushback on African social media. [Source]
Previous reports have documented problematic processes behind these videos. In an investigation of custom videos, advertised on Taobao, that featured African children holding up signs with messages in Chinese, the Hong Kong Free Press found that some children received only small snacks or a few dollars as compensation, and that some videos were used for advertising purposes in possible violation of Chinese advertising laws. Another investigation by France24 tracked online accounts related to a video of African children dancing and chanting a racist slogan in Chinese: “I’m a black devil. I have a very low IQ!” The video sparked a furious backlash on African social media.
Some Chinese netizens have criticized the trend, while others see no real harm done. CDT editors have compiled and translated some comments that appeared in a recent WeChat article about the bespoke videos:
“I finally saw that my housing complex did one of those ‘shout-outs from black people’ videos, too. [vomiting emoji] I want to say something: What do we find so interesting about these videos? Does dominating folks like this make you feel superior? Because right now, you don’t even have the freedom that they do, the freedom to take off your masks and go outside to film a video, you know?” [face mask emoji]
“I totally want to kill you people who are custom-ordering those videos of black people doing ‘shout-outs.’”
[…] “Wouldn’t it be better to use the money to buy more food?”
“There are 600 people in our complex. Everyone pitches in for group purchases, but we still can’t get our hands on vegetables, watermelon, bread or milk. Can’t we at least make fun of our misery?”
“This video was shot for 150 yuan. If a group of 200 shared the cost evenly, it would come out to less than one yuan per person, whereas a pound of green vegetables sells for double-digit prices.”
“A dance like this only costs 300, and with 1000 people in our complex, we can afford to do it just for fun, hahahaha” [Chinese]
The appetite for supportive videos from Africans—but not from Westerners—may reflect positive feelings towards Africa among the Chinese government and people, particularly in contrast to souring relations with the West. However, exploitative features of these videos betray the racist prejudices underlying certain Chinese views of Africa. Connecting these two threads for The Diplomat, Asen Velinov described how the videos provide a unique lens through which to view the China-Africa relationship:
[…] Everyone [during an online lecture at Shanghai University for Science and Technology] knew of the trend, and many found it fun and positive. The students who responded highlighted an understanding that China and Africa have a “tighter,” “purer” relationship, in which China has “helped” and “invested” a lot. The students agreed that [there] is no “rivalry” with Africa like the one China has with the “Western world.”
[…] “This perception is caused by a persistent narrative present in the education Chinese students receive: that there is friendship between China and Africa and that China has helped Africa in various ways,” said [Professor Liu Yuntong from the School of International Exchanges at Tongji University]. This “means that most people take this narrative for granted and do not question it when something like this trend appears to align with it.”
Jilles Djon, director of business development at the African Chamber of Commerce in China, understands why African greetings might be more welcome. “Considering the strong anti-China narrative currently presented by Western media and explicitly articulated by Western leaders, one can easily understand why Chinese content producers are not willing to support similar initiatives with Western involvement, for it can easily be misconstrued and taken out of context,” he said.
[…] Kabelo Seitshiro, a news editor for Botswana TV who holds an MA in Chinese Politics and International Relations from Fudan University, hadn’t heard of the trend until I asked about it. But upon viewing the videos, Seitshiro called them “a little unsettling.” “Some of these people look like they are being used as props,” Seitshiro said. “They are dressed up in costume, and being ‘made’ to chant stuff I doubt they understand.”
[…] [Chaniece Brackeen, an American social media consultant who has researched blackface videos in China, said of the latest trend,] “It might not make them hate or even dislike African people, but it certainly encourages attitudes towards African and Black people that dehumanizes them, making them no more than a color and vague sense of culture wrapped in eccentric garb. It is this monolithic way of viewing African people and Black people that is dangerous – quite the opposite of fostering any deep friendship between Africa (an entire continent) and China.” [Source]
Translations by Cindy Carter.